Electrostatic Headphones – How Do They Work?

Electrostatic headphones are premium headphones which use hard to implement technology to deliver impeccable sound with unparalleled levels of quality. Their design eliminates the use of magnets and coils through ultra-thin diaphragms which move back and forth from metal plates when audio voltage is applied. Consequently, electrostatic headphones benefit from lightning fast transient responses coupled with superior micro-details and that sought after ‘ethereal sound’.

Another part of its appeal is the incredibly low levels of distortion which give electrostatic headphones their unique sound and vacant noise floor. However, electrostatic headphones are not as frequently found as their dynamic counterparts owing to their difficult construction, expense and use of a proprietary power supply. For those that want to stretch and uphaul their audio game, however, electrostatic headphones are a no-brainer consideration.

What are Electrostatic Headphones?

Electrostatic headphones use a thin sheet of ultralight film (usually a PET film, a polyester film made with polyethylene terephthalate), where the electrostatic force is evenly distributed all over the surface.

The sheet is static in placement and is electrically charged. It is then placed between two metal plates that are both perforated. Once the drivers are activated with electricity, both the metal plates will have static clinging and repulsion between them.

Electrostatic loudspeaker diagram. Image from Wikipedia

That will cause the film inside to move as well, producing sound waves as a result. Since the film itself is almost weightless, the overall static energy moving between the metal plates will cause the film to vibrate. That vibration spreads outwards in an evenly amount. That results in the production of audio that we hear on our end.

Due to the nature of electrostatic audio drivers, they are better for audio quality and playback. However, there is a huge caveat to it, as it needs a high-voltage power supply, which means that it only works with dedicated audio amplifiers such as portable DAC/Amps units. Additionally, most headphones of this kind are very expensive, and only a few models exist in the market today.

History of Electrostatic Headphones

Headphones were born from simple origins: a small and portable loudspeaker driver unit meant to be worn by a user by simply placing it on the top of their heads, covering their ears as a result.

First created in the 1880s as headset equipment for the first batches of telephone operators, the kinds and types of headphones grew over the past few decades including electrostatic and planar headphones.

In 1937, the first-ever set of headphones to be sold to customers was Beyerdynamic’s DT-48, the first dynamic headphones, wherein a coil of wire stuck to a magnet with glue is used as the main part of its audio driver. It wouldn’t take long for the creation and arrival of electrostatic audio drivers and headphones in the audio peripherals, as the first one shows up on the other side of the world during that time.

Introduced in 1959, the Japanese company of STAX debuted the first commercialized electrostatic headphones, the SR-1. The unit was unveiled at an electronics show in Tokyo. A year later, production units became available for purchase for the consumers. It is now considered a vintage relic and pioneer in the history of electrostatic headphones. The success of the SR-1 made STAX the leader in producing electrostatic headphones in the East, and many audio manufacturers and companies in the West soon followed.

Electrostatic Headphones
STAX SR-1 (From HeadFi)

In 1968, almost a decade after the SR-1, the Koss company released the first Western-made electrostatic headphones, the ESP-6. It is also considered by many audiophiles as a vintage relic of the early history of this kind of headphones. Both it and the SR-1 can command hefty prices in many auction sites today, and many will do their best to get their hands on a pair.

Koss ESP 6 Vintage Electrostatic Headphones RARE on PopScreen
Koss EP-6 (From Popscreen)

Are Electrostatic Headphones Safe To Use?

Now, since the name of the headphones itself is “electrostatic”, you might be wondering to yourself: is it safe to use at all? The simple answer to that is an astounding yes, as it will not be still present in the market today if it poses a health and safety hazard.

But still, the fact that this kind of headphones use a high voltage to make itself work can be quite troubling to some. However, those same folks don’t need to worry, as the technology has evolved in the past few years and decades to ensure that it will not bring harm to its user.

As long as the headphones are used properly and in accordance with the manual, there should be no problem. Proper and responsible use will ensure you, as the user, will enjoy the benefits it brings to the table.

Using it with moderate volume levels while ensuring that the headphones themselves and the accompanying amplifier aren’t exposed to the elements such as water will provide an unforgettable user experience.

Additionally, avoid using the item near other devices that may have issues with the high voltage consumption. Doing so will significantly prolong the life of your electrostatic headphones.

Advantages & Disadvantages of Electrostatic Headphones

When it comes to the advantages of electrostatic headphones, there are many to take note of. For starters, of all the audio drivers present in the audio market today, Electrostatic drivers have the smallest number of parts than the others. Second, it is the most accurate when it comes to audio production.

Additionally, it has a lower distortion rate than the others, making it a perfect choice for sound engineers. And thanks to the simplicity of the driver itself, it is the lightest of the bunch when it comes to the overall weight. That makes most of the headphones and speaker units using this driver easy to carry and transport. Lastly, the bass it produces is very tight and controlled when compared to others.

It would be a lie to say that this kind of audio transducer doesn’t have its own set of disadvantages. One such example is the pricing; many electrostatic headphones are notorious for being quite expensive. And that isn’t counting the dedicated amplifier units that it needs to be paired and connected with for it to function properly at all.

Second, you will not be going anywhere when using electronic headphones as it requires to be plugged to your wall outlet during usage. Forget about portability at all when using this device. This disadvantage can be negated if you are using it for your music studio as part of your studio equipment or using it for your projects and experiments as a sound engineer.

Third, this may not be an issue to others, but this kind of headphones are known for being larger in dimensions. While this may be of benefit to some, caution must be applied for those with smaller sized heads. However, since these headphones are designed to be used in the home setting – its dimensions and larger aesthetics may not matter as much.

Some of the Best Electrostatic Headphones

We will now be checking some of the best electrostatic headphones in the market today that are using electrostatic audio drivers in their specifications. We highly advise you to take note of the ones that will catch your attention.

HiFiMAN Shangri-La

HiFiMan Shangri La Junior Audiophile Headphone and Amplifier Package -  Igloo Audio

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Another great product from HIFIMAN, but this time it’s their famous SHANGRI-LA electrostatic headphones. Specially made to order, these headphones have their own custom-made amplifier as part of their package when purchased. Being one of the flagship products of the company, they haven’t skipped on anything on these headphones.

Using both high-quality wood and metal, along with a customized amplifier called “Shangri-La System”, and a 5-year warranty commands a hefty price tag that may make you get a second mortgage. But that is all worth it due to its world-class audio output performance and the finest materials used in its construction.

It is even considered professional listening by HIFIMAN, as they will send a licensed representative to the buyer’s home to professionally install the whole system (including the configuration of the custom-made amplifier). Even before buying this product, you will need to attend a number of meetings with evaluators within HIFIMAN as part of their sales procedure. That shows how they meant business when it comes to the attention of this particular flagship product.

If you haven’t noticed, this kind of high-end flagship-grade headphones is meant to be used only in your home or studio, and therefore isn’t portable. It might be a bummer, but the trade-off you get from it is totally worth it overall.

HiFiMAN Jade II

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If you want flagship quality, comfort, and performance like the SHANGRI-LA, but want to experience a classic product with a lesser price tag, then you should try the Jade II model of HIFIMAN. Being the successor of their popular and highly-appreciated Jade 2008 model, it doesn’t disappoint as the new namesake of the model line.

The Jade 2008 model was the company’s first-ever electrostatic headphones and is extremely proud of the reputation and fame garnered by that product. The current successor takes all of the great aspects of what made the 2008 model a success and improves on those by a huge margin. Even though many upgrades have been made in the Jade II, it still retains the looks, feels, and performance of the original 2008 model that many have loved over the years.

It uses an open-back design, wherein the oval-shaped ear cups are purposefully designed to handle a deep bass that is very resonant in response. That is all possible thanks to the large diaphragm that each ear cup houses inside it.

And just like the SHANGRI-LA model, the Jade II has its own dedicated custom-made amplifier. That helps it to achieve its maximum output and performance. However, the caveat to that is that the Jade II isn’t portable; its design makes it inherently an indoor-only sound system headphones setup. That might be a huge letdown for people that are active outdoors. However, people who love (or need) to stay inside most of their time will enjoy it instead.

STAX SR-L700MK2

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If you are prepared to break your bank in pursuit of the ultimate Planar Magnetic headphones, then this is the one for you. Priced at $1,569, you will be getting your money’s worth as the materials and components used for the construction of this item is top-notch. Additionally, it uses a rectangular shape for its ear cups, giving it a specialized design that you won’t find in other headphones in the same class and price point.

It has a very complex and sophisticated design used for its ear cups, where it has features that you won’t find in others, such as heat diffusion for its driver. Its headband has a 10-point click system to ensure that no breakage will happen over time of heavy usage. Additionally, that system can remember the last position used so that adjustments won’t be necessary to maintain comfort and sturdiness.

It uses a low capacitance hybrid cable, which is flat in appearance but relatively thick. That thickness ensures durability and won’t easily snap its insides nor bend or flex easily to the point of breaking. It even uses leather pads made out of lamb for maximum comfort during usage.

STAX SR-007A

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Being the successor of the famous and well-known SR-007 “Omega II”, this is one of STAX’s popular electrostatic headphones in Japan, as well as in neighboring countries. It is also famous in Western countries, thanks to its simplistic but reliable design, and the performance output it provides to its user.

It is geared towards more to mid-to-lower frequencies while ensuring that there will be no drop in audio quality and loss of sound during usage. It is noticeable that when compared to its bigger brothers of the SR-009 family of headphones, the SR-007A stands out due to its relaxed sound signature.

Once it is paired with a powerful and reliable amplifier, the beauty of this particular device will shine through, bringing the best audio hearing experience one can experience using electrostatic headphones in the comfort of their own home.

Conclusion

As we have seen from the explanation above, we now know that electrostatic headphones (and the drivers inside them) work in a unique way. That uniqueness separates it from the old and proven but complex dynamic/moving coil drivers that most audio peripherals use today.

There is a huge potential for electrostatic drivers to become the normal drivers that will be used in everyday audio products, as long as the problems it has will be solved. Those problems are the high-voltage power requirement it needs to reach its maximum potential. Second problem would be its portability, but that can be solved by portable DAC/Amps units. Lastly, once manufacturers find a way to lower the prices of electrostatic headphones, many will surely get one for themselves to experience what it can deliver.

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